A pro-Israel event in Philadelphia aimed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention next week was abruptly canceled by AIPAC, the organizer of what was to have been a luncheon at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
A museum spokeswoman confirmed that AIPAC recently canceled the event.
AIPAC’s credibility rests on its being seen as a bipartisan organization. It has sizeable Democratic support despite its agenda aligning more closely with Republicans in recent years. Its cancellation raises questions about whether the lobby is scaling back its presence at this summer’s political conventions so it won’t appear to snub the GOP and its nominee, Donald Trump. Many prominent Republican Jews — among well-known Republicans and GOP supporters — are staying home.
“We do not have a large, public event at either convention, but AIPAC representatives will be at both conventions and host a number of smaller meetings,” an AIPAC spokesperson said.
A Republican with knowledge of AIPAC’s situation believes that the group made a good choice in reducing its presence at the conventions. He did not want to be named because of his position in a Jewish organization.
“[AIPAC] recognized that while the bipartisan consensus on Israel has broken down, in order for them to maintain the credibility of years and years of service they need to dial it back and get back to advocating for Israel on both sides,” he said.
“I think a trend we have seen in recent years is both [parties] have been pushed more to the extreme, and part of AIPAC’s appeal is that they’re bipartisan and appeal to both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Just how big has the AIPAC presence been at past conventions? In 2000, JTA reported that 800 local and national members planned to attend the 2000 Republican National Convention, also in Philadelphia. And a 2004 letter from AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr stated that 1,500 members attended a community event in New York City surrounding that year’s Republican convention.
But former Executive Director Tom Dine, who led AIPAC through three convention seasons in the 1980s and ‘90s, called the notion that AIPAC would send that many members to an out-of-town convention nonsense.
“Nobody sends 800 people to such an event … there’s no hotel space,” he said. “Now, let’s say in Cleveland or Philadelphia, which has a significant Jewish population, you have plenty of AIPAC members already living there. Then it might be possible.”
Dine said during his tenure, AIPAC scheduled events around each convention many months ahead of time. Some of these were policy-oriented, others were of the “ubiquitous watermelon, cantaloupe and cheese” social variety. He said four or five staff members and several lay leaders would meet with members of Congress and candidates at each convention.
Dine said these meetings provide important opportunities for members of the pro-Israel lobby to get to know their politicians.
“It’s about individuals and their future in politics, and their candidates for election and re-election would want to show their best sides to the pro-Israel leadership,” he said.
AIPAC used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on political convention-related activities. But since the recession in 2008, the lobby has become more frugal, said a Jewish organizational leader who is familiar with AIPAC. He didn’t want to be named due to his position with a Jewish organization.
“They want to have smaller, more intimate gatherings rather than more elaborate gala events,” he said.
“The bottom line is, Jewish organizations have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the treacherous waters of being involved in presidential politics,” he continued. “It’s very easy to screw up in being seen as too close to whichever party you’re at the convention of — to the point of leaders on the other side of the aisle getting upset.”
Susan Turnbull, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011 and has attended seven Democratic conventions, said a number of factors probably figured into AIPAC’s decision.
“I think it’s a combination that it is a hassle and community leaders are staying away, and AIPAC probably made a decision that there wasn’t much to gain, partially because so many Republican leaders are not going to the Republican convention,” she said.
The decision of an organization such as AIPAC to attend a convention is also based on logistical issues, such as public transportation and lodging, she said.
“Anyone who’s gone to a lot of conventions knows that it’s hard,” she said. “It’s fun, but it’s hard — because if you are not a delegate to the convention getting around is very hard.”
Turnbull said during conventions where she was a delegate she had the benefit of a driver and staff to guide her through the weeklong event. Her family, as spectators, did not have such advantages.